Sunday, March 27, 2011

Preach One: Lent 3A

Preached this morning at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, Crystal Springs, MS.

Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42.

When I was little, we spent summers at my grandparents' house in Spartanburg, South Carolina.  The road to their house climbed up and down rolling hills, wound through wooded neighborhoods, and crossed a creek.  That creek was our favorite part of the car ride, because as we drove over the little bridge, we would look out at the slow muddy water, wrinkle our noses in delighted disgust, and saw "Ewww!  Yuck!"  For all I knew, that was the creek's name - the Ewwyuck River.

Many years later, I would learn that the Ewwyuck is actually named Lawson's Fork Creek.  Who Lawson was has long been forgotten, but the creek is indeed a fork of the Pacolet River, which flows nearby.  A little downstream from the bridge to my grandparents' house, the water slides over an old mill dam and tumbles across exposed bedrock, splashing and churning and swirling as it falls down the shoals, no longer muddy water but white water, no longer stagnant but living.

Bodies of water often bear the name of the first person who stood upon the banks or the shoreline, or the person through whose property it flowed, or a person of some significance of status or station.  A body of water might be named for its qualities, like the Ewwyuck.  Perhaps Crystal Springs got its name this way, and Calling Panther Lake.  Ferdinand Magellan, the great explorer, saw ahead of him a vast expanse of peaceful blue ocean, and named it Pacific.  The Chippewa Indians, awed by the size of the slow-moving water that boundaried their land, named it Mississippi, or "Big River."  The people who settled Louisiana, itself named for King Louis XIV, called their great lake Ponchartrain in honor of the king's minister of finance.

The Hebrew people encountered one body of water after another in their escape from oppression in Egypt.  The Nile River received its name from the Greek word for "valley," but ancient Egyptians called it Ar, meaning "black," for the black sediment the river's frequent floods left on the land.  Their own mighty and muddy Ewwyuck, wild and beautiful and living water.  In the first of the plagues with which God struck the Egyptians on behalf of the enslaved Hebrew people, the waters of the Nile turned to blood, making it undrinkable.

Nine plagues later and finally free, the Hebrew people fled into the desert.  They were stopped at the shore of the Red Sea, the origin of whose name is widely disputed among scholars but may come from the color of the desert sand or the color of the seasonal bacterial blooms that fill the water.  With the Egyptian army closing in behind them, the Hebrew people were certain they would either drown or be slaughtered.  Moses prayed to God, who parted the waters of the sea so that they could pass safely through.  How wild and beautiful and living the towering waves must have appeared as the people made their way across the sea floor.

On the other side of the sea, though, out in the wilderness, bodies of water became farther and fewer between, until finally Moses and the whole congregation of Israelites, on their journey toward the promised land, came to a place where there was no water at all.  Perhaps it was about noon when, in the heat of the day, their feet blistering and their skin burning and their tongues thick with desert dust, the Israelites began to notice that they were thirsty.  They were tired and uncomfortable and cranky and afraid.  They were beginning to lose hope that they would ever see the end of this journey, and they complained to Moses, who in turn complained to God, They think that you don't care, and they are ready to stone me!

But the wilderness, although dry and barren, was far from God-forsaken.  I am with you, God would remind the Hebrew people over and over again.  Strike the rock where I will be standing, God said to Moses, and water will come out of it.  And so with the staff that had made the waters of the Nile turn sour and the waters of the Red Sea recede, Moses struck the rock, and sweet water gushed out, and the people drank.

When it came time to name the place, Moses might have chosen names that described the gift of the water, or even the water itself.  Relief.  Sweetness.  Our-Thirst-Is-Quenched.  God-Is-With-Us.  Instead, though, Moses chose names that described the people who had been thirsty, calling the place Massah and Meribah, meaning "Quarreling" and "Testing," reflecting not faith but doubt, Is-God-With-Us-Or-Not.

It was noon when, in the heat of the day, his feet blistering and his skin burning and his tongue thick with desert dust, Jesus began to notice he was thirsty.  He sat down beside a well hewn from solid rock - did he know it was named Jacob's Well?  The gospel writer claims that Jews shared nothing in common with Samaritans, but it was not so - just as Jesus and a Samaritan woman would share the well that day, so did their ancestors share a reverence for the spring-fed pool of water deep below where, according to legend but not to scripture, water bubbled to the surface so that Jacob did not have to labor to drink there.  I am with you, God had reminded Jacob and his ancestors and his descendants over and over again.  Behold, I am with you, and will keep you wherever you go...

We listen with delight as the gospel writer tells the story, as the woman and Jesus descend deeper and deeper into knowing one another as though descending a well, drawing ever nearer to the wild and beautiful and living water within.  We know, when as yet the woman does not, that the one perched upon the rock at Jacob's Well is none other than the one who stood on the rock at Massah and Meribah, the one who is named I AM, who once moved across the surface of the deep, hovered over the waters, and created the heavens and the earth.

Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.  The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.  So it is that the woman leaves behind her now superfluous water jar and rushes into town, gushing good news and wonder, wildness and beauty and aliveness.  Come and see!  Come and see this man...he cannot be the Messiah, can he?  The townspeople drink in every word from the spring of hope that has welled up inside of her, and in turn they, too, will gush good news.  We know that this is truly the Savior of the world.

All of us have been thirsty.  We know the heat of high noon.  Perhaps we have even been dehydrated, so desperate for water that our mouths and our minds, our limbs and our lives seem muddy and slow, dusty and dry.  We must have water to survive, to keep our bodies, themselves more than sixty percent water, alive.  There is nothing so satisfying or sweet or literally salvific - life-saving - as a cool drink of water.

But, like the Hebrew people in the desert, like the Samaritan woman at the well, we thirst for more than water in life - we thirst for security, for acceptance, for comfort, for worth, for love, for hope, for knowing we are not alone.  We live all the time in something like a wilderness, perhaps even sometimes in something like a desert, searching for a promised land, uncertain of whether we will make it there or not.  We have all the water we need at the turn of a tap, but still our hearts are parched, our souls dehydrated.  Our thirst drives us to seek relief from whatever sources we can find.  Thinking that we can draw enough of whatever we have chosen to drink, we seek to fill ourselves, to quench our thirst, with things that are not God.  Addictions.  Work.  Success.  Status.  Unhealthy relationships.  Money.  But we always come up thirsty again.  We become uncomfortable and tired and afraid and cranky.  We doubt.  We lose hope.  We quarrel with God in our prayers.  Are you with us or not?

And yet God always stands on the rock before us, ready to call forth living water, bucket after blessed bucket of hope, wave after wave of grace, cup after cup of love overflowing.  Theologians and preachers have long suspected that far deeper than any thirst we have ever experienced in body, mind or spirit is God's thirst for us, God's wild and beautiful and living desire for us.  The gospel writer does not tell us whether the Samaritan woman ever offered Jesus a drink from Jacob's Well, but we can be certain she satisfied his deepest and most divine thirst when she become a container, a wellspring of living water gushing up for others, inviting them to encounter Jesus, the rock of their salvation.  "I am the vessel," wrote Dag Hammerskjold.  "I am the vessel.  God is the draft.  And God is the thirsty one."

In the stories we heard this morning, God does not condemn the Hebrew people for the crankiness, nor does Jesus condemn the Samaritan woman for her doubt.  Water is offered freely, and keeping and caring for them both outwardly in their bodies and inwardly in their souls.  Paul, always so acutely aware of his sinfulness, marvels that God does not condemn him; instead, he writes in his letter to the Romans, God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.  Our bodies may be sixty percent water, but buried with Christ in our baptism and drinking our fill of him at this table, our spirits become one hundred percent living water, springs of hope and life and love.  And God names us, God-Is-With-You.  Even when we wander in a wilderness, even when we thirst, even when life is muddy and slow and ewwyuck, even in our sin, our hearts may be wild and beautiful and buoyant and our hope bubble up and endure.  Amen.

Photographs:  All photos are from Lawson's Fork Creek in Glendale, SC.


Cathy said...

How I wish the congregation at Crystal Springs could have "seen" your sermon as well as heard it. I believe, though, that they saw their own pictures in their hearts with your compelling words of description.

Melissa said...

It is nice to hear and read two interpretations of the Gospel. It gives you two ways to think of the Living water.

Jim Melnyk said...

Hi Jen, well worth the loss of sleep to get it done! Wonderful images. As always, I'd be happy just to grab your sermons and use them rather than come up with my own!